Herbal First Aid

by Rose Casey, www.rosewoods.com

This is an active time full of possible scrapes and abrasions, insect bites, sprains and more.  Fortunately, there are many folk and everyday herbal remedies that soothe, ease and heal “garden” variety injuries. Tonight we’re going to talk about how to prepare and use herbal preparations for many common injuries such as cuts, scrapes and skin abrasions, bruises, itching, burns & sunburn, insect bites, sore muscles, and sprains & breaks. Tonight we will focus on using fresh and dried herbs for topical applications such as poultices, compresses, fomentations, liniments, infusions, decoctions, infused oils and ointments, for just such occasions.  This is really a good time to start talking about these things because we’re right at the beginning of the growing season where many of these herbs will be available for you to get to know and try first hand!

Poultice                                                                                                                                   A poultice is basically a plant made into a paste by chopping, grinding or crushing fresh or dried herbs that are moistened and applied directly to the skin.                                          To start, let’s look at the basics for making an herbal poultice. First step is to grind or chop the herb to maximize the amount of plant surface exposed.  Next add some type of liquid to mold the dried or fresh herb into a usable wet paste. It’s the liquid-like paste that helps the plant constituents absorb through the skin.                                                              James Green in his wonderful book, The Medicine Maker’s Handbook, suggests a simple basic approach for making an herbal poultice. You can use fresh or dried herbs. If you’re using fresh herb, put about ½ cup of the whole herb and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan. Simmer for 2 minutes. Do not strain. If you’re using dry herbs, you can rehydrate the herb gently by heating it in a little water, apple cider, vinegar, milk or other liquid of choice. Once the herb has absorbed the liquid and softened, it is ready to use for preparing a poultice the same way that you would us a fresh plant. Fresh or dry plant herb – you want the consistency of thick glue, paste or oatmeal.                                            There are several ways you can apply a poultice.                                                                 1)     Apply the herbs directly to the skin, and then cover the herbal paste with a gauze, linen, muslin, or some other clean cotton cloth to hold the paste against the skin (use a pin or other fastener to keep the poultice in place) OR                                                               2)     Arrange the cloth on a clean, flat surface and spread the herbal paste over the cloth and then apply it. OR                                                                                                             3)     Another option is to stuff a muslin bag with the herbal paste and apply that to the area to be treated, wrapping the bag in another cloth or towel to keep it in place OR                    4)     Wrap the herbal paste (poultice) onto the skin using an ACE wrap type bandage (makes it easier to change the poultice) or self-adhesive bandages, OR                             5) Wrap injured area in fresh leaves, i.e. chickweed, mullein, plantain, marshmallow or mallow leaves. Thin smooth leaves (i.e. plantain) slightly fuzzy leaves (i.e. mullein, comfrey, marshmallow) should be lightly steamed until flexible, applied hot and insulated with towels before tying in place with a bandage.

A Poultice must adhere to the skin for it to work. Sam Coffman, Herbal Medic, and James Green offer some good tips when working with a poultice. Plan on using a lot of herb. You want to soak the entire area of the skin and more with a thick (think 1/2″ thick) layer of herb mixture. Change out the poultice frequently – like every 2-4 hours if possible. (The more critical and severe the injury or infection, the more often you need to change out the poultice). Give the area of skin some time to “breathe” without the poultice on it as well. Allow them adequate time to do their work.                                                            CAUTIONS: If there is an open wound it is important to apply a barrier between the herb and the wound (creating a “sandwich”). This can be done using a sterile bandage. Never re-use a poultice or poultice material, especially with infected parts. Never compost a poultice or its material. Never put an irritating ingredient, such as mustard, capsicum, cinnamon or Arnica directly onto the skin; make a compress instead.

Herbal Poultice Examples                                                                                            Plantain (leaf): Neutralizes toxins from stinging & biting insects; soothes inflammation, i.e. bee stings; helpful in withdrawing deeply lodged splinters or pulling pus from a boil. Chickweed (above ground whole plant): Apply the fresh plant poultice to mosquito bites and bee stings.  Makes a remarkable ointment for mosquito bites or anything that itches! A chickweed poultice is helpful for dry, itchy, inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, poison oak rash, or poison ivy rash.                                                                             Calendula (flower): Promotes healing & regeneration of bruised tissue, burns, eruptions, abrasions; reduces soreness & inflammation; antimicrobial properties assist in cleansing of a wound, fostering rapid healing; heal burns and soothe sunburns; gentle & safe, including children.                                                                                                                          Yarrow (flowers & leaves): healing for cuts, disinfects the wound, promotes tissue repair and reduces inflammation; speeds blood clotting – great for a nosebleed.                Comfrey (leaf & root): Repairs wounds. The allantoin content in the herb stimulates regeneration of skin tissue; soothes & softens tissue; quickens repair of normally slow healing process of torn cartilage, tendons & ligaments = “knitbone”; root is beneficial for the topical treatment of dry skin conditions such as the final stages of poison oak, poison ivy, or dry eczema. Wonderful topical application for sprains and breaks. Cautions: Do not use with very deep wounds as the external application of comfrey can lead to tissue forming over the wound before it is healed deeper down sealing in infection. Do not use where infection is present.                                                                                                White Cabbage (inner leaves of common white cabbage): drawing out splinters; draws out pus; wash inner leaves well and dry them; remove inner rib for easier processing; bruise leaves using a rolling pin or other instrument to soften them (Herbalist and healer, Maurice Messegue in his book Health Secrets of Plants and Herbs, suggests ironing the cabbage leaf) place on affected area; hold leaves in place by wrapping a loose bandage or small towel around them.                                                                                                            Clay as a poultice: Moisten with small amounts of water or herbal tincture with dry powdered clay until you get a paste like consistency.  Dilute an herbal tincture with about half as much water (2 parts tincture to 1 part water. Use this liquid to add to the clay. Slowly add liquid to clay stirring until paste, i.e. start with 1Tbsp clay to 1 Tbsp liquid. Add a few drops of lavender or tea tree essential oil (5 to 10 drops) & stir in. Apply a thick ¼ inch paste. Keep warm & moist – keep it wet or it is less effective. The paste can be applied to bites, stings, boils, or zits. The clay paste acts as a drawing agent that pulls toxins to the surface of the skin. It is one of the first things one can apply to spider bites, mosquito bites, or bee stings; as it will reduce the pain and swelling caused by the bite. There are several kinds of powdered clay, including red, green, or white clay; and any of them can be used for first aid purposes. (Christa Sinadinos, Clinical Herbalist)

Herbal compress                                                                                                                    A compress on the other hand is a form of poultice that is composed of liquids or lotions, absorbed in woolen or cotton cloths and usually applied hot and changed when it cools off. Cold compresses are prepared for treating some headaches and sprains, and to stop bleeding. Basically, a compress is a cotton cloth soaked in dilute tincture, full-strength infused herbal oil, herbal infusion or decoction that is applied to the skin and held in place using a cloth. Herbal compresses are a way to apply herbal extracts to the skin to reduce inflammation or promote healing. A compress works well for major pain but can also helps with more common muscle spasms as well. A compress can be effective for treating skin, muscles, tendon, joints & throat.                                                                                     Flannel cloths wrung out of hot liquid work well for compress. Two cloths should be available for every process – one flannel ready and hot while the other cloth is applied to the skin. After the water has been wrung from the flannel, it should be shaken up and laid lightly over the body part.

Herbal Compress Examples                                                                                       Calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers: Make calendula tea: pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon of dried florets (flower tops) and steep for 10 minutes. Once cooled, use the tea as a cooling compress for wounds. Very soothing and healing for abrasions.        Arnica fomentation (tincture) from James Green: Cold fomentation is used to enhance peripheral circulation, helping to eliminate the pain of bruises, sprains, torn muscles and tendon’s during the acute stage of an injury. A tablespoon of Arnica tincture to half quart of cold water is used as the liquid in which a fomentation is soaked and laid on the injury and immobilized immediately. Renew fomentation frequently. Apply warm poultices made of comfrey root and onion to give deeper action to assist the healing once the acute stage has run its course.                                                                                                           Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) fresh or dry plant: Prepared as a fresh plant tincture, poultice, fomentation, oil, salve, or liniment.  Works as an astringent, has anti-inflammatory and hemostatic properties (helps to decrease or staunch bleeding).  Beneficial for the treatment of bruises, sprains, strained muscles, varicose veins, and spider veins. Useful for the treatment of cuts, abrasions, bites, stings, and burns. Strong disinfectant and effective wound wash. According to Lise Wolff, Herbalist, yarrow is able to help blood both coagulate blood or break up the congealed blood of a bruise. “It immediately kills the pain of an old bruise as it disperses the blood, but if yarrow is applied immediately to a fresh bruise it will immediately take away the pain as well and reverse the bruising process.”  Cabbage leaves: According to French herbalist and healer, Maurice Messegue in his book Health Secrets of Plants and Herbs, cabbage leaves warmed with an iron is “used externally as a compress, it disinfects and heals burns, ulcers and serious wounds. It is therefore an excellent remedy for insect bites such as wasp and bee stings, and for spider bites. It is soothing for rheumatism, gout, stitches in the side and sciatica.”

Eye Irritations & inflammation (Using a compress or fomenation, Infusion, tincture):  Chamomile tea bags for puffy eyes; A fennel eyewash – yes, the culinary fennel seed – I got great relief when I ran into a pine tree and my eyes hurt like the dickens! You need to strain it really well, i.e. through a coffee filter. Bring a half cup of water to boil and pour the boiling water over 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, cover and let steep about 20 minutes. Strain it through a coffee filter. Let it cool to room temperature before using as eyewash. Using an eyecup makes it much easier. A third option I learned from herbalist, 7Song, is to use 2 drops (not dropperfuls) of eyebright tincture in a sterile eyecup filled with sterile saline solution to wash the eye. Worked really well.

FOMENTATION                                                                                                                       A fomentation is basically a compress applied to the body and kept warm to allow the heated herbal moisture in the compress to penetrate the skin. For example, ginger is a warming herb that helps increase blood flow and has an anti-inflammatory action on the area of the body you’re applying the fomentation. In Leslie Tierra’s book, A Kid’s Herb Book, she talks about using ginger as a fomentation. Leslie Tierra recommends a ginger fomentation for easing joints, muscles, sprains and even stomachaches. Accordingly, first make a tea out of the herb, i.e. ginger (fresh or dried); Then, dip a washcloth into the tea and let it soak 5 to 10 minutes. Using tongs, lift the cloth out of the tea. Quickly wring out most of the fluid. Immediately place the cloth over the desired area. Cover with a towel, then a hot water bottle or heating pad. Cover both with a large towel or blanket to keep it warm. Leave on 20 minutes. Repeat process if desired.                                              Another suggested method by John Gallagher at Learning Herbs is to measure one ounce of fresh chopped ginger root or dried ginger root. Place the ginger in one pint (16 ounces) of boiling water. Simmer 20 minutes covered. Simmer until reduced by half (to 8 oz). You are basically, making a decoction. Soak cloth in the strained decoction 5 to 10 minutes. At this point it is a compress. But, if now you also place a towel on top of the soaked cloth (compress) AND place a heating pad or hot water bottle over the towel to keep the “compress” warm and then place another towel over your heat source you have a fomentation. Let it rest like this for about 20 minutes, allowing heated herbal moisture to penetrate the skin.

Liniment                                                                                                                                  A liniment is an external application that is rubbed into the skin, generally used as disinfectants and for soothing strained muscles and ligaments, bruises and sprains. Liniments are made exactly like tinctures. In essence, the only difference between them is that tinctures are taken internally, and liniments are primarily for external use. Solvents: denatured rubbing alcohol, ethyl alcohol, i.e. vodka, vinegar. If you are using rubbing be sure to prominently label the bottle “External Use Only”. Warming herbs can be added to stimulate blood circulation and assist with arthritis, pain, stiffness, and conditions aggravated by exertion or cold weather, i.e. Cayenne or Ginger. Cooling herbs are useful for swelling, inflammation, and areas that are hot due to sprains, bruises, and other injuries, i.e. Peppermint or menthol crystals (the dissolve in alcohol)] Source: James Green’sThe Medicine Makers Handbook.

 KLOSS LINIMENT RECIPE – a classic recipe for sprains, bruises, rheumatism and wounds. It is an incredible disinfectant, useful for bad insect bites – swollen, i.e. brown recluse spider bites and wounds caused by barbed wire. Rosemary Gladstar has used it for over thirty year and in her own words: “Quite truthfully, you shouldn’t be without it.” Note regarding the recipe: a “part” can be a tablespoon or measured amount of your choosing; making half pint is plenty. Here’s Kloss’ recipe:

2 parts powdered Myrrh, i.e. 1 oz – incredibly disinfectant resin

1 part powdered Goldenseal, i.e. 1/2 oz – anti-viral, antiseptic properties – infection fighter

1/ 4 part powdered Cayenne, i.e. 1/4 oz – draws blood to the area – circulatory energy

Combine above herbs and then cover couple inches with Rubbing Alcohol (70%), i.e. 1 pint of rubbing alcohol. Mix together and let stand 14 days. Shake well every day or powders settle to bottom & not extracted. After 7 – 10 days strain and bottle. Let the liniment “set or infuse” for 6 to 8 weeks, increasing the potency. Strain using a stainless steel strainer lined with cheesecloth. Strain it once more through a coffee filter. Or, allow herb and rubbing alcohol extraction to set a couple of days without shaking it so the particulates settle in the bottom of the jar. Then, pour off the top liquid into your final bottle, leaving the herbal sediment or marc.                                                                                Label with date and ingredients and “External Use Only” especially if you’re using rubbing alcohol as the solvent. Place the liniment in a spray bottle for easy application. Apply directly on wounds or moisten a cotton ball with liniment and swab the infected area. Repeat as often as needed until the infection goes away. Cautions: because of the cayenne can sting, dilute with witch hazel or a little water, especially if using on children or pets or add it to a little oil if applying for athlete’s foot and you have a deep crack on the foot.


Fresh Plant Infused Oil, i.e. Plantain infused oil                                                                    For example, pick plantain leaves (Plantago major or Plantago lanceolata) when they are vibrant and green. I like to “wilt” the leaves before making the salve. Simply let the leaves air dry for a few hours or overnight so that they are still supple but limp. You are basically allowing some of the plant’s moisture to evaporate. This action helps decrease mold from too much water from the plant being in the oil. After the leaves wilt, chop them coarsely and pack loosely to the top into a clean, very dry jar. Add olive oil and dislodge air bubbles with a knife or chopstick. Place a piece of cheesecloth over the jar’s top and hold in place with a canning jar rim. This allows any air bubbles to escape and helps cut down on molding.                                                                                                                                Be sure to label with the name of the herb and oil along with the date and place herb was harvested Let it set out of direct sunlight. I usually place the jar on a saucer in case there is any oil leakage. Decant (strain) after six weeks, pouring off the oil through a stainless steel strainer. Don’t squeeze the remains of the plant material – it adds water to the oil that you have to let settle to the bottom of the jar.                                                                          Grate one tablespoon of beeswax for every ounce of strained oil. Stirring constantly, heat the oil and beeswax just until the beeswax melts, usually within a minute. Pour the liquid into small jars. Cool before placing the lid on the jar. Use this ointment lavishly for diaper rash, insect bites, all itches, and minor wounds.

Dried plant infused oil, i.e. Calendula infused oil

Basically, you infuse dried Calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers in your oil of choice. Measure 2 generous cups of dried Calendula flowers and 3 cups of the olive oil. Rub the flowers with your hands to break them apart adding them to the oil. Mix the flowers and oil together well in a stainless steel bowl. You want enough oil to saturate the flowers so that no flowers are above the oil. You can use a double boiler to infuse dried herbs in oil. Just be careful that the water in the bottom pan doesn’t boil up and splatter into the top pan containing the oil and herb.                                                                                           Another method demonstrated by Heneriett Kress in her book Practical Herbs I’ve tried and like a lot is simply place a stainless steel bowl over a half-filled pot of water and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the flame once the water starts to boil to a low boil. I infused the oil using this method for about two hours. I ended up adding more water to the bottom pan after about an hour. However, I strongly suggest you check that you have sufficient water in the pan holding the bowl so it doesn’t go dry on you!                                         You separate the bowl and the pot using wooden skewers. The heavier-duty type skewers work the best to hold the weight of the bowl.  I placed five skewers around the bowl to separate the bowl from the bottom pan to balance the bowl on top. This method typically eliminates the chance of water splattering into the oil. I also found that the herbs didn’t get “crusty” from too much heat. Compared to using a typical double boiler method, I found that at times the herbs got a little on the crispy side and hinted of a burnt smell. I give a pictorial of the process on my web-site www.rosewoods.com under the feature article Calendula preparations and more.


How much oil and beeswax you use depends on the amount of oil used in the first place. But, here’s a basic recipe. Place one cup of infused oil, i.e. Plantain, in a double boiler pan. Basically, one pan holds the water and the second plan on top holds the double infused oil. That way you don’t have the oil exposed to the direct heat of the flame making the oil too hot. Next, add 1 ounce by weight of beeswax to the oil in the pan. Heat the oil only long enough to melt the beeswax and no longer. Keep a watchful eye! It happens quickly. If you want a firmer salve, simply add more beeswax. Some folks test the salve consistency by taking a teaspoon of the blend and placing it in the freezer briefly to see how firm it gels up. Pour into a container and let cool before putting the lid on. Be sure to label with the ingredients and date.

Herbal Salve Examples

St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) primarily flowers with few leaves:  Basic healing antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent – great for wounds of all sorts; also antiviral, thus useful for cold sores, genital herpes and shingles; soothes and restores damaged and irritated nerve endings. Helpful for sciatica pain.                                                            Plantain (Plantago major or Plantago lanceolata) leaves:  Strong drawing agent, i.e. shards of glass, splinters, pus, or anything embedded in your skin; as an analgesic (it takes away pain), antibacterial. Useful for itching, insect bites, chafed skin, boils, chapped and cracked lips, rough or sore hands.                                                                          Chickweed (Stellaria media) above ground parts: especially wonderful on mosquito bites or any itchy skin or rash.                                                                                            Calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers: Promotes healing & regeneration of bruised tissue, burns, eruptions, abrasions; diaper rash; heal burns and soothe sunburns; gentle & safe, including children.                                                                                               Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) leaves– non-infected skin abrasions


James Green, The Medicine Makers Handbook                                                       Rosemary Gladstar – The Family Herbal and classes                                                        Sam Coffman, Herbal Medic, The Human Path                                                             7Song, Northeast School of Botanical Medicine                                                                 Lise Wolff, Herbalist, article on Herbal First Aid                                                              Christa Sinadinos, Clinical Herbalist, Northwest School for Botanical Studies                  Leslie Tierra, A Kids Herb Book                                                                                  Learning Herbs http://www.learningherbs.com/                                                            Personal experience